Seeking God

If I seem to avoid Church arguments on this blog site, there is a reason. For one, debates between Orthodox and Roman Catholics (or Orthodox and others) are interminable and unresolvable on the level of the internet. Most of us are arguing about things in abstract and are thus engaging in useless arguments. Secondly, it really is not the point. I believe the Orthodox faith and hold it to be the truth. But I did not reach that conclusion through argumentation but by a very different route. I believe in a “good God who loves mankind,” to quote from the blessing so often given in Orthodox services. Thus I have no fear that God is seeking to make any of us pass a special test or is purposely making salvation to be a difficult thing.

Instead, I believe most profoundly from my own personal experience, as well as nearly 30 years of pastoring people, that we stand on the edge of an existential abyss. It is God alone who sustains us and He alone is the Lord and giver of life. Apart from God we not only can do nothing – we verge on becoming nothing (though God in His goodness does not begrudge us our existence and thus does not take even that from us). But in our lives we often are standing in relationships and situations which place us in opposition to God and thus in opposition to our own existence – and this opposition is frequently at the point of criticality.

Repentance is the turning away from the madness of our flirtation with non-existence and turning to the true and living God, the Father of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. Repentance and life in communion with God are not in themselves difficult – but being loosed from our death-wish and our drive towards a depersonalized and meontic hell – can be difficult in the extreme.

Thus, most of my writing is aimed towards the goal of our salvation in the Truth. I do not mind if Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists or Animists (or Atheists) are saved. In accordance with the will of God, I would that all men be saved, thus I do not begrudge anyone any amount of the truth they may perceive. But I believe that the fullness of Truth and the fullness of our existence are made known to us only in the incarnate God-Man, Christ Jesus, and that the fullness of His teaching and Life are found ultimately only in the historic and living Orthodox faith.

But that itself is only the means or a description of what I believe God has done for us – the goal is union with God in Christ – to be drawn away from the abyss of self-destruction and to be united to the Good God and become ourselves the lovers of mankind.

Thus much of my writing is pointed towards prayer, towards forgiveness, towards a greater understanding of our culture and how we are drawn away from the Good God. Those who read this blog or listen to my podcasts (which are generally taken from this blog), will know that I hold in the highest regard my deceased father-in-law, who was a Baptist deacon, and whom I number among the most faithful and extraordinary Christians I have had the good pleasure to know. This is not a question of ecumenism, but simply of knowing a friend of God when I meet him. Those who refuse to recognize such friends are in serious delusion and are not perceiving the world in the manner vouchsafed us in the lives of the Saints.

Readers will also note that I have no ecumenical speculation in my writings. I seek only to be a faithful, and increasingly simple, Orthodox priest. God has not set me in a position to make decisions about matters ecumenical. He has set me in a place to pray for all as though they were my own self and to understand that I am the worst of all sinners. But in that, He has called me to be a faithful Orthodox priest. I have made solemn vows and promises to God and been set with very specific responsibilities that I dare not ignore and I never want to become so clever that I can see my way around any of those promises and responsibilities.

But everything – all that is – is rightly centered and focused in God. There are a million distractions to be found in the world of religion – each of which is not God. Only those things that draw me to God are of use to me or anyone else through me on any given day. Only if I give myself to God will I be of use to anyone else. And only if this ministry draws people to the true and living God will it have been in the least bit useful.

I have been blessed in the past year (almost two) to have received many encouraging notes and emails that make me believe that some small part of what I hope is actually being fulfilled and the time that I spend in this form of ministry is, in fact, of God.

But I quote Fr. Thomas Hopko, who in retirement seems more focused than ever on the simple message that we should “remember, it’s all really about God.”

32 Responses to “Seeking God”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    definition:

    meontic – moving towards a relative non-existence

  2. Seth Williamson Says:

    Dear Father Stephen: As soon as I found it, your blog became my favorite. Your latest post is the best. You are a God-pleasing priest and I wish you many years.

    Seth Williamson
    Slings Gap
    Franklin County, VA

  3. TerryM. Says:

    Thank you for the definition of meontic. I looked it up and got quite confused with other definitions.

    And thanks also for helping this poor ELCA traveler to move a little closer to the God of Creation – Father of our Lord and Saviour – and His awesome power by His gracious Holy Spirit.

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    Terry,

    I’ve actually only encountered the word in a few Orthodox theological writings in which it had this specific definition. It’s a compound from the negative particle “me” and “ontic” which would meaning “having to do with being”. “Me” is a relative negative where “ou” or “ouk” is an absolute negative. I think that Zizioulas was the first place I ran into the word and only a few times since. You made me curious about other meanings. Apparently it’s used to simply refer to “non-being” in some contexts. But in Orthodox theology I’ve only seen it used in the carefully nuanced sense of “tending towards non-being”. Utter non-being is not within our power – only God gives being, which he brings to be out of nothing. St. Athanasius writes much on this in his De Incarnatione Verbum – that we tend towards the nothing we came from when we separate ourselves from God. But, as I noted, God does not begrudge us our existence and therefore does not take existence away from us. He wills to bestow not just existence but “well-being” on us (salvation) but we obviously refuse Him in many cases. Hell is thus not a punishment sent from God, but a refusal to accept the gift of well-being. The article by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev on Hades (which is linked on my blogroll) is a very good read on the topic.

  5. FrGregACCA Says:

    While the subjects and discussions that you seek to avoid indeed have their place, I for one very much appreciate the path your blog has taken, Father.

  6. elizabeth Says:

    Father bless!

    Thank you for this post. I also appreciate what and how you are doing this.

    Question… have been thinking a bit about the word ‘non-existence’ and nothingness… my knowledge of philosophy is pretty limited – a few literary criticism courses, 1 course each on existentialism and aesthetics on the undergrad level – however I know that concepts of ‘nothingness’ and discussions about it have taken place. Can you explain or unpack a little more about this part of your post? I know even less about other religions, but it seems that ‘non-existence’ as something that could be desired is common in other Eastern Religions. Can you explain why Christ and Orthodoxy is going towards the opposite of non-existence? I sense that you have hit on something important for us, esp. in the current culture we live in, which appears increasingly interested in the non-Christian East.

    Thanks again, for the post and the ministry you are doing here.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Elizabeth,

    A very good question indeed. A number of religions of the far East would have no problem with nothingness, or the loss of personal identity. Probably the great gulf between Western religion (of which Orthodoxy is a part when discussed in this global manner) and Eastern religion, is the view of Person and what value it has. For some religions, it is only temporary, an illusion and a problem to be overcome. In Orthodox Christianity Personhood is a manner of being, not quite the same thing as “individual” because it also presumes being in communion with other persons – indeed in Orthodox theology it is this “communion” that is the true source of our existence, or rather the source of “true” existence.

    We say this of God – that He is Three Persons in One Being. Thus to exist properly as Person, is to be like God (or according to His image and likeness – and is thus the highest good). And the word we use for such proper Personal existence is love. Love of God, love of neighbor, love of enemy, love of everything and everyone, this alone, sustained and enabled by God’s grace, is what gives us true existence.

    Other religions that do not have such a view of the personal can (in some of their forms) not have such a view of love.

    On the menu of what to believe – I choose love. And nothing, I believe, teaches love in the same sense, depth and completeness as Orthodox Christianity. If so, I’ve not seen it. What is more rare than finding this in theology, is finding it in person. That is a rare treat indeed.

  8. Seeking God « Te Deum Says:

    […] https://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2008/07/15/seeking-god/ […]

  9. Wonders for Oyarsa Says:

    Father Stephen, I have a question. Have you found, in the fullness of your Orthodox life, a place for the hymns of your culture? Do you ever find yourself still singing songs like “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling”?

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    Wonders,

    Now you’re getting personal. Actually, I like to play the piano, and “Softly and Tenderly” is among my favorite things to play. It makes me think of my grandfather (as well as God). My wife and I both grew up with those songs around us. I also play guitar and like to play country gospel (and sing) when I’m alone or with just family or a few friends. If a song is true, then it is true. What the Church sings is like an icon and has its parameters and guidelines, but it does not say there can be no other form of art. There are “folk hymns” in Orthodox cultures that are not sung in Church. The youtube video Christos Voskrese, that I’ve posted a couple of times is a hymn written by St. Nicholai Velimirovic, which, with its instrumentation, etc., would not be used in Church. But people were created to sing (God sings, too).

    There are many wonderful writings of the saints and fathers, but in Church we read the Scriptures (and sometimes from the lives of the saints). We would never read Dostoevsky in Church, but we certainly read him. I think of it in the same manner with music.

    Two of the greatest composers of contemporary classical music are Orthodox (Arlo Paert and Sir John Tavener are examples I think of immediately). My assistant priest writes contemporary Christian music and has a couple of good CD’s out as do a number of other priests whom I know. Orthodoxy can be surprising that way.

  11. Isaac the Syrian Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    A question I have seen posed by atheists before is that if a person winds up in hell by his own choosing, and repentance is no longer a possibility, then wouldn’t a merciful God bring this individual’s existence or at least sensibility to an end somehow? I know some Christians actually believe in annihilationism for the “unsaved” who want no part in communion with God, but clearly the Orthodox Church rejects this. Certainly with the Orthodox picture of heaven and hell presented in essays like “River of Fire” you can leave behind the notion of the cosmic torturer, but the larger question of a person forever lost in conscious torment being left in that condition remains. I get that God won’t begrudge anyone their existence, but there is almost a sense that for some this might be a merciful and loving thing to do. I know what St. Gregory of Nyssa or my own patron St. Isaac might suggest as a possible solution (God raises all because all will eventually be reconciled even if some or many must pass through the fires of Gehenna first).

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Isaac,

    It’s a very good point one, it would seem to me, that would make thought lean towards Isaac of Syria or St. Gregory. It’s just that it raises a question for which we have not been given the answer. But I trust that God is good, and that He will do only good – abundantly above all we could ask or think. If I were a mass murderer I’d rather face God than any jury of my peers.

    Those Christians who have opted for annihilationism, are succombing to the Protesant temptation to tie everything up neatly (no loose ends). It renders God theoretical and their theology mere speculation. It is good for us as men to come to some places and say, “I don’t know.”

  13. Durk Says:

    I’m one of those who increasingly find the blog and posted comments here very helpful and inspiring. Along with you, I find it ridiculous to think that God has purposely made salvation difficult. From what I read in the Gospel, the Savior would never have said: “Okay, read this 70 page document on ecumenical relationships, so you can more clearly understand what the ‘right’ Orthodox body might be!” Ridiculous.

    I believe, along with you, that the Gospel is for healing and life. But that does raise the question for me, insistently: if, by their actions, Orthodox bishops participate in joint services with heterodox (as the EP did in Rome on the Roman Catholic Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul this year); and if Orthodox bishops sign written statements saying that they find themselves “moving beyond a theology that requires a personal relationship with Christ for salvation” (as they did in Barr, Switzerland in the early 90’s); and if they, in essence, begin to teach and act as if there is no difference between the healthy “prescription” given by Orthodoxy, and the prescription given by the heterodox; and if no Orthodox body calls this into question; then where will us, the rank and file, continue to find life? If the prescription we’ve been given keeps being changed? As St. Paul said (I paraphrase), how can one believe unless one is having the Gospel preached to them?

    I’ve seen too many sites on the web where these questions are endlessly debated, most often with extreme defensiveness and rancor. So I’m not sure if I even want a response to this. As with you, and with all who read your blog, I’m trying to work out my salvation with any diligence I can muster — this is the real work. But I do feel, my conscience feels, that if I refrain from making the above points, I’d be remiss.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    I assure you there is no movement towards the kind of ecumenism you describe within Orthodoxy. If anything there has been a pulling back from these things. Rome is pursuing stuff vigorously, but nothing has particularly come of that. Orthodoxy is not being betrayed. I am comfortable with that and not worried. Like you, I am working out my salvation from day to day.

    Some of these stories get over-played by those who benefit most by their exaggeration. I am aware of situations, for instance, in the OCA, where priests have been disciplined by acts that violate the canons on services with the heterodox. Those canons are still enforced, even in the OCA. If that is the case, then I don’t think there is a departure from the faith occurring. The “prescription”, i.e. the canons, have not been changed.

    I don’t actually know any Orthodox priests whom I would describe as “ecumenical” – and I know a lot of priests.

  15. Michael Bauman Says:

    Durk, it seems to me that the question you are really asking is what do we do with a bad bishop? The traditional response has been to endure until he dies because Jesus Christ is always faithful. (The noted exception was the “Union” of Florence) I, like you, have a problem with that. In practice, it takes enormous humilty to address such things, more than I usually have.

    The response of many to the “Union” of Florence was to absent themselves from the Cathedrals. In Moscow, they went a little further and threw the offending bishop in jail and then exiled him.

    Clearly, though we have a responsibility to call the bishops to account–that is part of living in community, in the Body of Christ. How to do it? We have the Biblical instruction for settling such disputes. I’ve tried it with priests and it actually seems to work. Never tried it with a bishop though.

  16. Durk Says:

    Thanks to both of your for your compassionate replies. By the way, Fr. Stephen, I like you come from a very deep Protestant background (father, grandfather, uncles and cousin all ministers and missionaries in a very “mainline” Protestant church).

    Michael, I think you did answer my question: enforce the canons. In part due to compassionate dialog like this, I’ll make it a point to pray that Orthodox bishops the world over DO begin or continue to enforce the canons; not out of malice or an “us vs. them” attitude, but in order to preserve the saving Gospel — which is being so elegantly described on Fr. Stephen’s blog.

    As I mentioned to Fr. Stephen in a private email, I’m a member of an old calendar jurisdiction, so our response has also been to “empty the cathedrals.” My parish is very small — needless to say! But my kids grew up in it, and I have wonderful spiritual companions and guides.

    If either of you are interested, I can email or hard copy mail articles that I think merit our attention regarding the ecumenical activities of Orthodox bishops — some maybe innocent, some clearly not.

  17. Karen C Says:

    “In accordance with the will of God, I would that all men be saved, thus I do not begrudge anyone any amount of the truth they may perceive. But I believe that the fullness of Truth and the fullness of our existence are made known to us only in the incarnate God-Man, Christ Jesus, and that the fullness of His teaching and Life are found ultimately only in the historic and living Orthodox faith.”

    “Those who read this blog or listen to my podcasts (which are generally taken from this blog), will know that I hold in the highest regard my deceased father-in-law, who was a Baptist deacon, and whom I number among the most faithful and extraordinary Christians I have had the good pleasure to know. This is not a question of ecumenism, but simply of knowing a friend of God when I meet him. Those who refuse to recognize such friends are in serious delusion and are not perceiving the world in the manner vouchsafed us in the lives of the Saints.”

    Father bless! Amen, amen, amen. What a beautiful balance. Thank you, from my heart, once again.

  18. Dale Says:

    Father, forgive me if my thoughts are due to ignorance of the truth.

    the issue of ecumenism is one I struggle with. In fact the belief in the one holy catholic and apostolic church is one of the primary issues I have as an evangelical. very closely related to the church being the body of Christ and not the invisibly and loosely connected on a theoretical but disturbingly fragmented body of Christ. (He could have called it that if it is what I meant I would think)

    I think my issue, as is so often the case, is one of semantics. to me, ecumenism is the healing of the rifts and fragmentation of all believers towards the one True faith. That would mean true life in the communion of all believers in a very real sense and not the feel good invisible church sort of way. I think the orthodox would agree with this ecumenism. What the orthodox should not accept, and what they are pulling away from, is the common approach of compromising to the lowest common denominator of the faith and even doing that poorly for one of many possible reasons which are often, not always, pushed by a less than holy agenda.

    I feel as though if I come from denomination ‘A’ which seperated from denomination ‘B’ because ‘B’ believes something less than the truth, I should mourn daily and pray regularly that ‘B’ would see the Light and we could once again be reunited. Once we are reunited, thanks be to God, we should seek to be reunited with the inevitable ‘C’ that ‘B’ came from until we work our way back to a full healing of the original church (I would say Orthodox). The problem I sense with this actually happening is that we have lost so much of the truth by the point we are at denomination ‘A’ that we are too proud to consider that we may need to be those ones to change. We no longer see the value in humilty (who needs it when we ‘know’ what we need to be saved already). We may be willing to compromise because then we can hold onto our pride (we may be a little wrong but look how wrong they were!) We need the Orhtodox Church to hold firm to the Truth and for God to protect it.

    I have rambled on too much and I apologize for that but I would love to see ecumenism succeed in the Truth. One last question. Would the Orthodox state that true ecumenism will occur even if only at some point in distant eternity. After the final resurrection how could the Body remain in any way but as One. okay that was more than one question.

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    What the future holds in detail we do not know. I do know that God has “purposed to gather together in one, all things in Christ Jesus,” (Ephesians 1).

    In the meantime, Orthodoxy holds to what it has received and is patient on other matters. The danger is for man to try and make happen what God alone can do. Thus we wait.

    In the end, I will say, since Christ Himself is the Truth, all who are saved will be saved in the One Truth. I’ll let God work it out. But it is for us to pray for all, to love all, and to forgive all, even though we must obey the canons (which means we do not practice any form of open communion).

  20. Dale Says:

    just want to say make clear that the one catholic and apostolic church issue is one driving me to orthodoxy and not away from it. seemed unclear in my last post. The beacon of truth for the healing of the non orthodox churches in this life seems to me to be the authority of the Orthodox Church standing steadfast.

  21. Jason Says:

    We’re all heterodox to the Old Believers.

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    Although great strides have been made in healing that schism. Some Old Believers are in communion with the main body of the Orthodox, believe it or not. There is the recognition on the part of the Orthodox, that the schism created by the Nikonian reforms may not have been necessary or salutary.

    There is an old quaker (I think) statement, “Everyone is wrong except for thee and me, and I wonder sometimes about thee.”

  23. Aitor de la Morena Says:

    May God grant you to live what you write in this post, father Stephen! Specially, the increase on simplicity and in disregarding everything than doesn’t take to God.

    Yours in Christ,
    Aitor

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    May God hear your prayers.

  25. Martha Says:

    Father, thank you for this post and for your blog. GTGFAT and Monachos have become oases of rest for me, in the midst of busy family life.
    With many thanks again, humbly
    Martha

  26. fatherstephen Says:

    Martha,

    Thank you. GTGFAT sounds like a government acronymn, nevertheless I thank you!

  27. elizabeth Says:

    Dear Father,

    Please bless!

    Thank you for your response to my question. I will have to give it some thought; I found the answer you gave above my question, to TerryM also helpful, as you explain that humans cannot, even if they want to, cease to exist. Actually I think this fact, when not properly understood, causes resentment within a human, depending on their level of brokenness; it means loss of ultimate power/choice regarding our own existence for one thing. I have not read a lot of theology (Orthodox or otherwise) like some – I can sense that your answer is based on your own reading and thoughts upon this reading. The book you recommended earlier, _Being as Communion_, by Met. John Zizioulas, I assume is one of these places. Could you kindly confirm this?

    Also, can you clarify what you mean by ‘communion’ – I see that you are not refering directly to the Eucharist as the first source and the True Source of communion (not that you are denying this); it seems that you are speaking of a commuion between people. Could you clairfy this? I can understand commuinion with the Saints (as in the departed and living in church together) and the Eucharist (as much as one can understand such a mystery) but I am unsure of the link (communion) between persons as source of our existance. (I am refering to this part of your answer: In Orthodox Christianity Personhood is a manner of being, not quite the same thing as “individual” because it also presumes being in communion with other persons – indeed in Orthodox theology it is this “communion” that is the true source of our existence, or rather the source of “true” existence.) Can you explain this a bit further?

    Also could you recommend further reading on the understanding of Orthodoxy (and Christianity) going towards true being – as you wrote in your post? (or is the answer in the second part of your first answer to me: to love?)

    This word, being, seems to begin in existential thought; I remember reading Madeleine L’Engle and her discussing the word ‘ousia’ for being; can you offer a word that the Fathers used for this (the word being), or is the word ‘ousia’ (am I spelling it right? I know it is Greek) right there in the Fathers, when discussing the Incarnation?

    I would love to understand more so that I can explain (in my limited fashion) the worldview difference regarding these concepts (the concepts being the post-Christian West and the Non-Christian East and the Christian understanding). From the book titles I remember from my undergrad, ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’ and the ‘self’ are much discussed and debated within the West, before even considering the non-Christian East…. So I realize this maybe a question of too great a scope for a quick answer.

    Again, thank you.

  28. fatherstephen Says:

    Elizabeth,

    Such good questions. I have used a fair amount of Zizioulas in my thought, but in many ways he is only developing the work of St. Basil the Great. Ousia, being, is a term used throughout the fathers, particularly starting in the 4th century. Your observation about our limits of freedom are quite true to a certain degree. We did not choose our existence even as we have it now. However, to exist in the fullness of what it is to be Person, requires our cooperation and freedom. We can refuse such a gift (the fullness of true existence in freedom and love) but it simply pushes us deeper towards non-existence and the misery of life without love.

    St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word is a book worth reading in this. Zizioulas is hard reading, but with patience is rewarding (Being as Communion is his best work). The writings of Father Sophrony do much the same but in a far deeper level, focused more on our inner life and prayer.

    By communion is meant – a true participation in the life of another. Thus we share in God’s life as He shared in ours. He became what we are so that we might, to some degree, share in what He is. St. Paul says that Christ “became sin” that we might become “the righteousness of God.”

    You might do a search on this web site for articles on communion or the word koinonia – that’s the Greek – I’ve written a number of things on it over the past year that you might of interest and some small help.

  29. elizabeth Says:

    Father Bless!

    Thank you very much. It makes me feel happy that I have asked some good questions. Koinonia – I know that word from my protestant days! I will do some searching. I also appreciate very much your gentleness but also that you are honest when I do not understand something completely. Thank you again. Your answer helps a great deal in the questions I asked. I have been chrismated almost four years now and I am so happy that I have been given such a gift in the Church – the depth of the Church goes so incredibly far – it is very reassuring to finally find such a home. And that there are answers as well – that the Fathers have so much to tell us for our lives now, etc. Thank God and thank you for your time.

  30. Thomas Katsampes Says:

    Fr. Steven – bless! – this is a very nice post. I shared it with a Lutheran friend of mine. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    In Christ
    Thomas K
    http://victorycross.wordpress.com

  31. Seeking God « Te Deum Says:

    […] https://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2008/07/15/seeking-god/ Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Looking for the tow truck driverPerspectives on Christianity #2 […]

  32. Wes Says:

    Surprisingly, this page is the number 1 Google hit for “meontic definition.” It seems that it is also frequently applied in discussions of Romantic theatre and its aesthetic objectives, particularly the concept of theatrical illusion – that isin theatre “meontic” refers to the reproduction of what is not there in reality as part of the illusion of the scene.

    Just for the sake of extending of the scope of the term’s denotation in both our spheres of study.

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